CLOSED EYES (Shema – Part 3)

Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

With its declaration of one all-powerful infinite God, Jewish tradition holds that the Shema’s first verse “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” is the most important and, as such, demands greater concentration so the eyes are closed or covered by the right hand during its recitation. The Talmud traces this practice back to Rabbi Judah the Prince (135 – 219 AD) who often interrupted his lectures to recite the Shema. Whenever he did so, the rabbi placed his hands over his eyes as a way of disconnecting from his surroundings.

Reading about covering eyes during Shema caused me to ponder why we usually close our eyes during prayer. Closing our eyes certainly helps us avoid distractions but I came across additional Talmudic explanations for this practice. Rather than closing his eyes as a way to shut out the world, 13th century Rabbi Yonah Gerondi rotated his eyes so he could see God in all directions. He only covered them during the Shema to ensure his spiritual privacy while rolling his eyes. In his explanation for shutting the eyes, 17th century Rabbi Ezekiel Landau said, “it would be difficult to express complete faith in God while looking at the pain in the world around us.” Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to express our faith in the midst of the suffering and ugliness in the world.

Another Talmudic explanation for closing the eyes while reciting the Shema is that its meaning goes beyond stating there is only one God—the Shema also means there is no existence outside of God. By closing one’s eyes during its recitation, a person briefly steps outside the physical reality of the world and into a reality centered only on God.

While there are times I pray with my eyes open (when walking in the morning, inspired by God’s glorious creation, witnessing something troubling, or saying a quick prayer for a stranger or passerby), I usually pray with my eyes closed (as I suspect most people do). Why? After all, when Jesus taught us to pray, He didn’t tell us to close our eyes before starting!

Perhaps we close our eyes during prayer for all of the reasons found in the Talmud—to avoid distraction, to see past the pain, to see God in all directions, and to acknowledge that nothing exists outside of Him. It could simply be that when we close our eyes all we can see is darkness. Nevertheless, even though we can’t see our surroundings, we know they haven’t disappeared because we also know that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Our closed eyes remind us that even though we can’t see God, His purpose, or His plan, He’s right beside us. Perhaps, we close our eyes because, as follower of Christ, we live by faith, not sight!

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

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THE SHEMA (Part 2)

The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]

great blue heronIn its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.

It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?

God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. [Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)]

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OUT OF CONTEXT

The instructions of the Lord are perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight for living. [Psalm 19:7-8 (NLT)]

gullIf I read a novel simply by searching through it for a few choice sentences, I’d miss the whole plot! I could quote Scarlett’s last words “After all, tomorrow is another day,” but I wouldn’t know why she said it nor would I know why Rhett said he didn’t give a damn! If I picked out just a few sentences in A Tale of Two Cities, I’d never know why Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or even the names of the two cities! While I might be able to quote Santiago’s belief that, ”A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” I wouldn’t know if that proved true without finishing The Old Man and the Sea. Reading only bits and pieces, I’d never know that it was an escaped convict, not Miss Havisham, who was Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations, that Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester had a lunatic wife in the attic, or the identity of the killer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Since we don’t read novels haphazardly, I wonder why we tend to do that with the Bible. Rather than a work of fiction, it’s the Word of God! Moreover, we can get in trouble by reading out of context and basing our faith and lives on a few select verses. The story is told of a man, plagued by guilt, who sought spiritual guidance in his Bible. Opening it randomly to Matthew 27, he closed his eyes and placed his finger on the page. It came to rest on verse 5 in which the remorseful Judas went out and hung himself. Wanting clarification and further guidance, the man flipped to another page and randomly selected a new verse. It was Luke 10:37 when, following the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” For that man, reading the Bible as a random series of verses and instructions had tragic consequences. We must be cautious of thinking of Scripture as a faith-based version of a Magic 8-ball. Opening it randomly and putting a finger on a verse to select our course of action is not its purpose.

In spite of its 66 books, 1,189 chapters, and 31,173 verses, the Bible is not a series of unconnected short stories or unrelated verses—it is the continuous story of God’s relationship to man and deserves to be read that way. Individual verses aren’t meant to be read alone; they need to be read in context. The chapter and verse numbers are there solely to make it easier for us to locate passages and are no more part of the Bible than are its page numbers. If we’re not going to read at an entire chapter at a sitting, we’d be wise to follow the advice found in the Talmud: “He that reads in the Torah may not read less than three verses.” [m. Meg. 4.4]

The Word of God well understood and religiously obeyed is the shortest route to spiritual perfection. And we must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A.W. Tozer]

You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:15-17 (NLT)]

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SHAVUOT

At the Festival of Harvest, when you present the first of your new grain to the Lord, you must call an official day for holy assembly, and you may do no ordinary work on that day. [Numbers 28:26 (NLT)]

fruitAt sunset yesterday, the Jewish feast of Shavuot began. Originally known as Festival of Harvest or First Fruits, Shavuot is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals given to the Israelites. The first was that of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and the third was the Final Harvest or Ingathering (Sukkot or Tabernacles). Originally, all three festivals were tied to the harvest with Passover at the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot seven weeks later at the start of the wheat harvest, and Sukkot at the last harvest of the season. For a nation who’d left Canaan because of famine, spent four hundred years in a foreign land (much of it as slaves) and then another forty years as nomads, the promise of becoming a people with land of their own, who could plant and harvest for themselves, must have been almost inconceivable.

Two distinct rituals were observed on Shavuot. In gratitude for the harvest, two loaves of bread baked from the new crop of wheat, a bull, seven lambs, two rams, and a goat were offered. In the second ritual, the choicest of the harvest’s first fruits were presented to the priests as these words from Deuteronomy were said: “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.” [26:3] Continuing with verses 5 through 10, the worshiper then acknowledged God’s faithfulness in bringing the people out of Egypt and in keeping His promise to the patriarchs to bring His people to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Because it fell a full seven weeks (50 days) after the Passover, this festival became known as the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot).

Ten days after Christ’s ascension, during Shavuot, a group of believers gathered together in Jerusalem. A powerful wind roared and flashes of fire appeared and “everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Because of the uproar, a crowd gathered and Peter preached the gospel to them. That day, 3,000 people believed and were baptized; these new believers were the first fruits of the gospel harvest. Because it occurs fifty days after Easter, Christians call this day Pentecost, from the Greek meaning “fiftieth.” Because of the difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, however, 2021’s Shavuot began last night but Pentecost will not occur until Sunday, the 23rd.

Because rabbinic tradition held that the Law was given on Mt. Sinai exactly seven weeks from the beginning of the Exodus, the day’s emphasis gradually moved from the first fruits of the harvest to the Torah. By the 2nd century, with the Temple destroyed, what began as a harvest festival commemorated the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

Today, Shavuot celebrates Israel’s bond because of the Torah and Pentecost celebrates Christians’ bond because of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when looking at the origin of this ancient Jewish festival and its acknowledgement that God fulfilled His promise to bring His people into the Promised Land, I think of the many Messianic promises of the Old Testament. Rather than freeing us from slavery in Egypt, God faithfully fulfilled His promise and freed us from slavery to sin. Rather than physically bringing us into Canaan, He brought the Kingdom of God to us. Granted, the story is not over and the Kingdom is not fully realized, but we are in the land He promised and the best is yet to come! Let us be thankful and praise God for all He’s given us!

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. [Deuteronomy 8:7-10 (NLT)]

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BUT THERE’S A DRESS CODE! (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 2)

And he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:8-10 (NLT)]

mute swanIn Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Dinner, after the initial guests refused to come, the king’s servants invited everyone they could find. Since it was a royal wedding, you’d expect the new guests to be dignitaries but everyone was to be called—regardless of social standing, race, nationality, wealth, or even moral character.

What seems like a beautiful example of God’s grace takes a turn when we learn that the king seems to have set a condition—a wedding garment must be worn. When I’m going to a wedding, it takes days (and probably a shopping trip or two) to put together the proper apparel and this was a royal wedding! People came from all walks of life and, with little time to prepare or purchase fancy clothing, we’re surprised when the king notices a man not wearing wedding clothes. Confronting the guest, the king asks how he could be there without proper attire. When the man has no reply, the king has him bound and cast into “the outer darkness.”

It’s easy to think the host’s problem is that the man is poor and has only rags to wear but the host’s anger seems so unlike Jesus that I was troubled by this part of His story. Scripture, however, never says the man was poor or dressed in tattered clothing and the speechless man, by never explaining himself or even asking how to get such a garment, seems to know he doesn’t belong at the feast.

By eating with sinners, touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, and talking theology with a Samaritan woman, Jesus never seemed overly concerned with propriety or etiquette so it’s hard to think He took much notice of clothing. Some commentators speculate that the king must have furnished all of his guests with suitable apparel and that the man slighted the king by refusing to wear it. While it makes for a convenient explanation, there is no evidence of this being a Jewish custom so I’m not sure Jesus’ listeners would have understood it that way. Then again, perhaps “proper clothes” shouldn’t be taken too literally!

Rather than fabric and jewelry, could the wedding garment be the righteousness of Christ? By accepting the invitation, the evicted guest professed his belief, but the absence of a wedding garment testified to the falseness of his profession. A wedding garment would be the evidence of salvation—a way of life showing rebirth, repentance, and the works of righteousness. If we want to enjoy the feast, lip service is not enough; we must be righteous in character!

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” [22:14] God will not have an empty banquet hall and His invitation has been extended to all. He will, however, reject those who refuse His offer (as did the first invitees) along with those who are false in their acceptance (as was the man without the wedding garment.)

When sinners come in repentance, trusting in Christ, then He clothes them with the garment of salvation, with the robe of righteousness. This is the wedding garment that makes one presentable at the marriage supper. [Harry Ironside]

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  [Matthew 7:21 (NLT)]

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? …  Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. [James 2:14,26 (NLT)]

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THE PARTY HAS STARTED (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 1) 

The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come! [Matthew 22:2-3 (NLT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesIn explaining the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told a parable about a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. Weddings are notable events but this was a royal wedding of great significance! Perhaps the most famous royal wedding was that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. Broadcast all over the world, the wedding was viewed by 750 million people and 3,500 people attended the royal nuptials. In spite of the honor it was to receive an invitation from the Queen, not everyone who got one attended the festivities. The Presidents of the Republic of Ireland and Greece along with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain spurned the invitation for political reasons.

News of the royal wedding in Jesus’ parable would have spread all over the land and the guests already had received and accepted the first invitation (the 1st Century equivalent of a “save the date” card). When the feast was prepared, the king sent his servants to notify his guests that all was ready and the time had come. Unlike the few people who declined Queen Elizabeth’s invite, everyone invited by the king refused to attend: an inexcusable affront to the monarch. Nevertheless, in spite of his people’s deplorable behavior, the king was patient and sent out a third invitation.

A king’s invitation is more of a command than a request, but the people ignored his messengers; some were even abused or killed. When the people’s behavior went from insult to outright rebellion, the king reacted as would any king: by sending soldiers to kill the murderers and burn their town. With the wedding feast prepared but no guests, the king sent his messengers out to invite everyone they could find (both good and bad) until the banquet hall was filled.

Up to this point, the parable isn’t hard to understand. The marriage feast is the Messianic reign—the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God since the two terms were synonymous). The King (God) had sent his messengers (the prophets, including John the Baptist) to invite His people (the Jews) to the wedding feast for His son (the Messiah). Since the original guests rejected His invitation, God extended his invitation to everyone (both good and bad Gentiles). His servants (the Apostles) would bring them into the banquet hall. The punishment of those who abused and killed his messengers along with the promised destruction and burning of their town points to Jerusalem’s fall and the destruction and burning of the Temple (the center of Judaism) by the Romans in 70 AD.

Matthew placed this parable immediately after the Parable of the Evil Farmers in which Jesus warned, “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit.” [21:43] This parable expands on that theme. For centuries, the Jewish people had been invited to the Messianic feast, but they were showing contempt for God’s grace by their refusal to attend.

When Luke relates a somewhat similar parable about a feast, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus taught for three years and, like any good teacher, probably repeated Himself from time to time. Both versions made it clear that, even if the initial guests refused to come, God’s plan would not be stopped. His Son would have a people who would enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom! The parable in Matthew’s gospel, however, carries an unmistakable message with its description of the king’s punishment. The parable then takes an unexpected twist. Just when it seems that all were welcome at the King’s banquet, not everyone who came was allowed to stay. More about that tomorrow!

The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, “Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” After the servant had done this, he reported, “There is still room for more.” So his master said, “Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.” [Luke 14:21-25 (NLT)]

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